Why the Salvadoran Diaspora is Embracing a Dictator


Home DescompasesWhy the Salvadoran Diaspora is Embracing a Dictator

The presidential election on February 4 2024 proved Nayib Bukele’s popularity among the Salvadoran population in the United States. In spite of the clear irregularities in polling stations abroad, it is undeniable that the large majority of the Salvadoran diaspora supports him. The Salvadoran American journalist Daniel Alvarenga explains that massive support.

Daniel Alvarenga

Read the Spanish version here

El Salvador finds itself in political turmoil, whether people want to admit it or not. A self-described cool dictator achieved what no leader had been allowed to do since the 1930s: run for an unconstitutional consecutive reelection and win.

One of the few tangible outcomes from the peace accords that ended our 12 year bloody civil war were the many safeguards put in place to ensure El Salvador doesn’t fall back into the darkness of fascist military dictatorships. The very thing that set off the mass exodus that finds so many of us in the diaspora, right now. The Salvi diaspora has seemingly played an outsized role in this election compared to previous ones, becoming often willing pawns in uplifting fascist pro-Bukele propaganda and voting en masse for a country they no longer have to live in the consequences of voting in.

I’m not going to lie to you and say that Bukele isn’t popular in the diaspora. As a Salvadoran who grew up in California’s Los Angeles county and currently resides as a journalist in Washington, D.C., I have my ear close to the two largest Salvadoran diaspora hubs. Anecdotally, talking to people on average, the layperson Salvadoran diasporan I meet has positive things to say about the Nayib Bukele. When I go to the Salvadoran supermarkets in Hyattsville Maryland, they sell Bukele themed aprons. You can buy a Bukele t-shirt from the street vendors in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. These endorsements of Bukele include strangers, relatives, friends of friends, children parroting what their parents learned from a deranged YouTuber.

Most Salvadorans in the U.S. are part of an oppressed class. Many are undocumented or are in mixed-status families. Many work in low paying jobs and live in urban areas with some of the highest costs of living. We also have lower educational attainment than other groups of Latinos in the U.S. Surviving the American dream takes away a lot of resources, time and energy from having nuanced and coherent takes on politics in El Salvador. For many, El Salvador is just plainly inaccessible and illegible because of all these dynamics. And in this atmosphere there’s also a lot of amnesia of the war and an unwillingness or ability to confront our pasts. What has come to fill the void is the onslaught of Bukele propaganda on social media, especially YouTube. A deliberate attempt has been made to court diaspora, to pull on our heartstrings, using our generational war trauma, using our nostalgia for a place that no longer exists. 

With a critical lack of media literacy, the appeal is high for nicely produced content that promotes Bukele’s dictatorship. Salvadorans in the U.S. are starved for their slice of media representation in a society that tells them that representation matters more than their rights. Considering the mainstream U.S. narratives on El Salvador center violence and dehumanization: gangs, war, the U.S.-Mexico border; I see where they’re coming from—I’ve been there too. So when a random European or American content creator descends on El Salvador and starts speaking and promoting the alleged good things about a place you’ve been taught is the worst, deadliest, most downtrodden, you listen. Salvadorans in the U.S. often see themselves as competing against other groups, particularly Latino nationalities who have had much larger cultural footprints. Many of us in the diaspora have an identity and self esteem issue that Nayib Bukele regime plays like a fiddle.

Now, this doesn’t represent all of us. Some Salvadorans who are conscious of the U.S.’s cruel and racist mass incarceration policies, which includes immigrant detention, were alarmed when they saw El Salvador walking into a similar scenario. Some Salvadorans were actually taught about our freedom fighters and our martyrs and we keep our memoria historica alive. Some Salvadorans remained skeptics and came to clearheaded conclusions on their own. Some people in the diaspora have loved ones who have been unjustly detained without trial. Some people in the diaspora have already had to flee the regime. And some of these people are even organizing locally with MOVIR (Movement of Victims of the Regime). These are the voices who get drowned amid Bukele’s propaganda.

There are many in the diaspora who are in the dark about the tens of thousands who are detained without trial, who have been tortured and have died in Bukele’s prisons. There are many who theoretically support U.S. leftist causes like defunding the police and ICE, especially after the 2020 George Floyd uprising, but will turn around and champion a President who has made El Salvador the most incarcerated country per capita in the world. There are many who understand FOX News and their republican viewership want to eliminate us from the U.S., but don’t care that Bukele is prominently featured there. There are many who support abortion rights and LGBT rights in the U.S., but do not care that Nayib Bukele’s regime opposes that too. There’s a huge disconnect between many in the diaspora and the resistance and opposition to Bukele. Currently, only one camp is really engaging a critical mass of diaspora, and he’s been winning the misinformation war all the way to an unconstitutional presidency. We need to come together, transnationally, as a people, with knowledge and empathy, and wake up. 

Daniel is a queer Salvadoran American independent journalist. He has held positions at Al Jazeera and Telemundo, focusing on reporting and video production. His writing has been featured in Rolling Stone and The Washington Post. Daniel’s journalism primarily revolves around El Salvador, its diaspora, and the preservation of collective historical memory. In 2020, he was honored with a Poynter Award from Yale University for his work. Born in Los Angeles, California, he is the child and sibling of Salvadoran refugees who fled the civil war in the 1980s. He currently resides in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, where Salvadorans constitute the largest immigrant group.

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